In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dependencies

  • Introduction
  • Monographs and Edited Collections
  • Semantic, Syntactic, and Morphological Dependencies
  • The Fourteen Combinations of the Three Major Types of Dependency
  • Special Syntactic Problems Treated within the Dependency Framework
  • The Advent of Syntactic Dependency in the 1950s
  • Predecessors

Linguistics Dependencies
Igor Mel’čuk
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0104


Linguistic dependency is a binary relation between lexemes (≈ words) in an utterance; it is antireflexive, antisymmetrical, nontransitive, and acyclic. Dependency is best represented by an arrow: X→Y, meaning “Y depends on X”; X is called the governor of Y, and Y is a dependent of X. Dependency made its appearance in linguistics through syntax, so that, even in the early 21st century, when linguists talk about dependency, more often than not they mean “syntactic dependency.” This, however, leads to logical mistakes, because, in point of fact, natural language features at least three major types of dependency: semantic, syntactic, and morphological, which should by no means be confused. (For simplicity’s sake, still other types of linguistic dependency are ignored here: in particular, communicative dependency between semantemes and compounding dependency between radicals within compound lexemes, such as takes place in German compounds of the type Nachtzug ‘night train’ versus Zugnacht, literally, ‘train night’ = ‘night on a train’.) As follows from the aforementioned characterization of dependency, all three types of linguistic dependency are syntagmatic by nature: they hold between the elements co-occurring in the same utterance. Although the study of linguistic dependency is a relatively recent domain, the corresponding literature is huge. This article will not try to cover it thoroughly; on the contrary, in order to achieve good surveyability, only the sheer minimum will be cited. Given the nature of this article, some formal statements are, from the factual viewpoint, only approximate (as some secondary linguistic phenomena are not taken into account). The goal of the article is to present the state, in the early 21st century, of the dependency approach in linguistics, describing it as rigorously and formally as possible. This approach’s historical evolution as well as the use of dependencies in other approaches are left out. It is necessary to emphasize that the state of the art in the domain is such that much attention must be dedicated to the system of concepts and the terminology instead of simply introducing the corresponding titles.

Monographs and Edited Collections

The not-too-numerous monographs on linguistic dependency are Tesnière 1959, Kunze 1975, Schubert 1987, and Mel’čuk 1988 (cited under Dependency Trees as a Means for Representing Syntactic Structure). To some extent, one could include here several monographs by Richard Hudson, of which only one is cited: Hudson 2007. Three edited volumes should also be mentioned: Ágel, et al. 2003–2006; Polguère and Mel’čuk 2009; and Gerdes, et al. 2011.

  • Ágel, Vilmos, Ludwig M. Eichinger, Hans-Werner Eroms, Peter Hellwig, Hans Jürgen Heringer, and Henning Lobin, eds. 2003–2006. Dependency and valency: An international handbook of contemporary research. 2 vols. Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter.

    A collection of papers concerning theoretical and descriptive problems of dependency syntax.

  • Gerdes, Kim, Eva Hajičová, and Leo Wanner, eds. 2011. International Conference on Dependency Linguistics: Depling 2011 Proceedings, Barcelona, September 5–7 2011; Exploring dependency grammar, semantics, and the lexicon.

    All the talks given at the conference on the dependency approach (D-approach) in linguistics; the book offers a panorama of the research in the domain.

  • Hudson, Richard. 2007. Language networks: The new Word Grammar. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A presentation of a particular linguistic approach, called word grammar, which leans heavily on cognitive linguistics, the relationship of language and the corresponding brain mechanisms, and so forth. Word Grammar is completely based on dependency; see, especially pp. 117–182. Much attention is paid to the problem of so-called long-distance dependencies and to word order.

  • Kunze, Jürgen. 1975. Abhängigkeitsgrammatik. Studia grammatica. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

    A good introduction to syntactic dependency (Synt-D), written by a mathematician (based on German).

  • Polguère, Alain, and Igor Mel’čuk, eds. 2009. Dependency in linguistic description. Papers presented at a symposium held in Saint Just, France, in 1999. Studies in Language Companion Series 111. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.

    A collection of four papers—corrected and extended versions of the papers presented at a colloquium in 1999. The topics are centered on dependency syntax: a general review of dependency theory, with consecutive analysis of semantic, syntactic, and morphological dependencies; the place of phrases in D-approaches; establishing an inventory of surface-syntactic relations (SSyntRels) for a particular language (French); and linear placement of clitics in a dependency syntax of Serbian.

  • Schubert, Klaus. 1987. Metataxis: Contrastive dependency syntax for machine translation. Distributed Language Translation. Dordrecht, The Netherlands, and Providence, RI: Foris.

    A parallel description of syntactic structures of several European languages. Examines formal syntactic-paraphrasing rules for natural-language processing (NLP), for machine translation (“metataxis” stands for a system of correspondences between the dependency structures of different languages). Several special problems of dependency syntax (D-syntax) are discussed, such as the representation of coordination and relative clauses. Review: Bengt Sigurd, 1988, Studia Linguistica 42.2: 181–184.

  • Tesnière, Lucien. 1959. Éléments de syntaxe structurale. Paris: Klincksieck.

    The first monograph-sized theoretical study of Synt-D, with a plethora of factual data—the Holy Bible of the D-approach.

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